When Deane Beman took over as its commissioner in 1974, the PGA Tour was a middling collection of tournaments, many hosted by celebrities like Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin, flimsily synchronized by a headquarters staff of 27. The total purse that year was $8 million. On television, golf was less popular and less lucrative than bowling.
Over the ensuing 20 years, Beman reinvented virtually every aspect of professional tournament golf. Almost all of the signal attributes of today’s prosperous PGA Tour—the corporate title sponsorships, the emphasis on charitable giving, the network of Tournament Players Clubs where many events are staged (including the Players Championship the week after next at the famous island-green TPC Sawgrass course in Florida)—were his innovations. When he retired in 1994 at the young age of 56, total annual Tour prize money had grown to about $100 million, on its way to $276 million last year.
How Beman pulled this off is the subject of a new book by Adam Schupak called “Deane Beman, Golf’s Driving Force: The Inside Story of the Man Who Transformed Professional Golf Into a Billion-Dollar Business” (East Cottage Press). It’s as much a business narrative as a sports book, and all the more fascinating for it.
“I was not a commissioner that was loved,” Beman told Schupak. “I do believe I was respected. But I wasn’t trying to run a popularity contest. I was trying to break new ground.”
That he did, redirecting his considerable ambitions as a player (he was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion and won four Tour events in five seasons as a pro) into hacking his way through the thickets of golf’s entrenched interests.
The Tour, when he took the job, was still partially controlled, through representatives on the board and various contractual relationships, by the PGA of America, the organization of club and teaching pros from which it had nominally gained independence only five years earlier.
One recurring subplot in Schupak’s narrative is Beman’s ultimately successful, 17-year push to disentangle from the PGA, since the interests of club pros and Tour pros didn’t always mesh. Among his craftier tactics: officially changing the Tour’s name, for seven months starting in August 1981, to the TPA Tour, for Tournament Players Association.
He also faced resistance from many of the players he worked for as commissioner. By a combination of luck and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, he defused a player revolt, midway through his tenure, led by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. The top-tier players believed that some of Beman’s initiatives, such as building courses and marketing the Tour as a brand unto itself, exceeded his authority and were robbing them of their ability to make money independently.
Meanwhile, lower-tier pros complained that the structure of the Tour prevented all but a handful of players from making a decent living. Beman drove through reforms. He increased the number of players who automatically qualify for tournaments each year to 125 from 60. He also formed what are now the Nationwide Tour and the Champions Tour.
The evolution of the television model under Beman’s stewardship is also a good story. The networks didn’t offer more golf in the 1970s partly because it was so expensive to produce, unlike arena events that could be covered with a handful of stationary cameras. With the expansion of corporate title sponsorships in the 1980s, however, Beman was able to offer the networks a package with all production costs covered and a large percentage of the ads (often 40%) presold to the sponsor. The networks initially objected to using the sponsors’ names in referring to the events, but Beman took care of that, too. He changed the name of, for example, the Nissan Los Angeles Open to simply the Nissan Open. The networks (and print media) then had no choice but to use Nissan’s name whenever they spoke about the tournament.
In an interview this week, however, Beman pointed to the two developments he thinks were the most significant of his tenure. The first was reorganizing the Tour as a not-for-profit association instead of as a for-profit corporation in 1979. According to estimates the Tour provided to Schupak, that switch has yielded $500 million in benefits over the years.
The second was recognizing that tournament volunteers and the charities they support were the key not just to the Tour’s future success, but to its survival. In 1979, the Tour’s policy board passed a resolution mandating that all tournaments be run for charities.
“The tournaments had to stand for something. People weren’t going to give up their vacation weeks to volunteer if the only purpose was for golfers to come in from out of town and leave a week later with a lot of money,” Beman told me. If the Tour had to pay for all the man-hours required to run a tournament (directing parking, marshalling the fairways, working the scoreboards), there wouldn’t have been much remaining money to leave with, anyway. Through the end of last year, Tour events had raised $1.6 billion for charities, most of them local.
This charitable work has proved effective, too, in attracting corporate sponsors, who value the association. “When you come down to it, it’s the culture of the game and the players that is golf’s most valuable asset, much more than the tournaments themselves or the television contracts,” Beman said. He said that he tried to protect that tradition above all else, even as he commercialized professional tournament golf and transformed it from a minor-league sports enterprise to the big time
A great leader.